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First author, Abiskar Gyawali, measuring the heights of plants in the field
photo courtesy of University of Goettingen

An international team of scientists led by the University of Goettingen has developed a new approach to identifying the genes that control plant traits. The method will enable plant breeders and scientists to develop more affordable, desirable, and sustainable plant varieties, especially for fruit, vegetable, and grain crops that are critical for global food security and human nutrition.

The new method is an extension of a tool known as GWA (Genome Wide Association). GWA studies use genetic sequencing technologies coupled with advanced statistics and computation to link differences in the genetic code with particular traits. When using GWA to study plants, researchers typically manage large sets of genetically identical plants, which can be a costly and time-consuming process. The new technique is modeled after an approach often used to study human DNA, in which DNA samples from thousands of individuals are compared.

To test whether the new approach would be successful in plants, the scientists combined the advantages of a GWA study with additional statistical analysis techniques and investigated whether their combination of approaches could accurately detect genes involved in plant height, a trait that has been extensively studied. The scientists planted four fields of an early variety of white maize (white corn) and measured the height of the plants. They identified three genes, from the potential 39,000 genes in the maize genome, which were controlling plant height. The effects of all three were supported by previous studies on other maize varieties, which validated that their method had worked.

“Scientists usually have to measure huge numbers of genetically identical plants in order to have a powerful enough study for finding genes,” said Timothy Beissinger, head of the Division of Plant Breeding Methodology at the University of Goettingen, in a press release, “but we used a diverse maize population and showed that our approach was powerful without relying on identical plants at all.

“The exciting thing is that this study reveals the potential for our method to enable research in other food crops where research funding is not as high,” he added. “Due to industry and government support, resources are already available to do large-scale studies in maize. But for scientists studying the countless vegetables, fruits, and grains that many communities rely on, funding for massive studies simply isn’t possible. This is a breakthrough which will enable cheap and quick identification of trait-gene associations to advance nutrition and sustainability in food crops worldwide.”

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